Botanic Green Cures to China’s Pollution Woes

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It started in the kitchen, as most good things do. The steam that made the lids dance on the pots and pans also drove the Industrial Revolution, mechanising humans and opening up corners of the planet hitherto inaccessible to the intrepid European traders.

Of course, humans have been dabbling in botany since the first curious biped planted grains of wheat, for the craic, and lo and behold, it grew and the Agricultural Revolution was underway, so naturally, the marriage of trade and discovery led botany back to the centre stage forward of human development.

Botanists jumped on board these Dutch, Spanish and British ships and these two unlikely bedfellows returned with delights such as rubber, pharmaceutical wonders such as cocaine, aspirin; tea and God Bless it, coffee, to name but a few of the magnificent treasures that came floating back across the waves.

Fast forward 300-odd years from the first steam engine that pumped water from mine shafts in the U.K. and Nanjingers awake to soupy air, so thick it sticks in the back of the throat like a lump of gristle in a “yang chuan”. Like a fish out of water, we swallow and swallow but like the fish, we cannot breathe.

Brown. Yellow. Grey. The colours of autumn, though the backdrop to your alarm on snooze is ever brightening, heralding Spring! Spring is springing!

Yet, the air is dirty. The heating is turned up full blast and the windows are open; the filthy smog floods in and we cough and complain and walk around in t-shirts. Years of economic growth have produced the inevitable smog blanket that accompanies the churlish child of progress.

It moved from London in the 18th Century, to the US in the 19th, and now has settled over Asia as China establishes itself as a global industrial powerhouse. And yet, it is here in China, where estimates of up to 1.6 million people per year die of air-pollutant related illnesses, that the most innovative and optimistic of developments are taking place.

After the 2015 “Airpocalypse”, and the uncharacteristic tongue-lashing from the populace, the government rolled out sweeping reforms. Physical evidence of the success of these measures was not long in seeing the light of day. A new departure for China, where the growth of the economy had hitherto taken precedence over the well-being of the residents, polluting factories were closed, factory emissions were severely capped and coal stoves were confiscated from villages around the country as shiny new gas pipes criss-crossed the land. An article for Reuters by David Stanway said that China managed to cut concentrations of hazardous particles known as PM2.5 by 6.5 percent in 338 cities in 2017 alone. In Nanjing, the reduction was as much as 16 percent. Once the country had seen the green light, so to speak, they were off. With restrictions on car usage, higher octane diesels, a decided move to support the electric car industry (making China world leader in electric car production), and a whopping $360 billion-dollar investment into renewable energy sources by 2020, Middle Earth has never been so green.

Botany meets beauty, in another simply marvelous innovation in urban planning here in on our very own doorstep; Nanjing “Vertical Forest” is one of the first of its kind worldwide. A pioneering idea, based on plain old homespun common sense, Nanjing Vertical Forest is due for completion this year, although rumours suggest the project is some way behind schedule. As economic growth slows and the trade war with the US continues, innovation remains key to controlling air pollution and is not doing any harm to the economy either.

The brainchild of Italian architect Stefano Boeri, Nanjing’s Vertical Forest will initially be comprised of two towers coated with 23 species of tree and more than 2,500 cascading shrubs. Inside, there will be offices, a luxury hotel, a museum and even a green architecture school. Once operational, Nanjing’s Vertical Forest will eat 25 tons of carbon dioxide each year and produce about 60 kg of oxygen daily, say the firm. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, a typical vehicle emits an average of 4.7 metric tons of CO2 annually, meaning the complex would cancel out the emissions of about five cars every year. The towers are based on a similar Vertical Forest designed by Boeri and built in Milan in 2014. Boeri believes that these green cities could “eventually be the solution to climate change”.

Similar projects have sprung up in Shenzhen, another smog plagued megacity that chokes on the fumes of avarice. There, a grassroots initiative called The Green Rooftop Project started a series of rooftop gardens in 2017, aiming to use storm water to reduce the city’s massive floodwater problem, and to suck the CO2 out of the air with leaves. With a population of over 12 million, dense living conditions mean green space is hard to come by. The new rooftop gardens give residents a place to relax and could also reduce up to 65 percent of the city’s floodwater, said The Guardian in November, 2018. Such “Sponge Cities” are another fun and relaxing part of China’s plan to curb climate change and help cities deal with extreme weather.

Botanists, therefore, continue to better the lives of the human species as a whole. They got me with coffee, but clean air is also a worthy, nay, laudable pursuit. Let the walls bloom, let the streets be perfumed with flower petals, let the PM 2.5 monitors stay as green as China. It’s a lifestyle. Choice. Choice. Choice. People don’t like change, they will question it; doubt it. Yet China is showing that change is possible, and we will all breathe a little easier as a result.

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Triona Ryan
Educator, writer, minstrel and Collector of Rare and Marvelous Moments; Triona Ryan, born in Ireland, moved to Spain for the summer back in 2003 and stayed for a decade. Now based in Nanjing, China, she spends her free time feeding her cats, picking cushions off the floor and pondering the paradoxes of the human condition. She also sings, often and everywhere.